In October 2012, following months of discussion and analysis, the Roger Williams University Board of Trustees adopted an initiative called Affordable Excellence®. These two words reference a host of actions devoted either to making an RWU education more affordable to a broader cross-section of families of high school graduates hoping to enroll at a high-quality private university, or to enhancing the quality of that education even beyond its already very high level.
In my last post, I posed the dilemma of how a campus could freeze tuition (as Roger Williams University has chosen to do), thereby eliminating a logical source of new revenue, without somehow causing damage to the quality of the students’ educational outcomes. Isn’t it the case that “you get what you pay for” – and if you pay less, doesn’t that ensure that you will receive less?
Of course, most people recognize that the quoted statement is overly simplistic. A person can spend anywhere from about $15,000 to more than $200,000 for a new car, but most people don’t think that it is worth it to spend extravagantly on a car, if their primary goal is just to have reliable transportation. Similarly, one can purchase a perfectly respectable bottle of wine for $10 to $20, although it is also possible to spend more than $200 for a grand cru from Burgundy. Is that bottle worth 10 or 20 times the first bottle? As a practical matter, not to most people.
A recent analysis showed that the median family income in America, adjusted for inflation, has fallen to levels not seen since 1995. The median inflation-adjusted tuition sticker price at America’s private colleges and universities, however, has grown by more than 50 percent since 1995. The consequence, even with increases in institutional aid, is that a substantially smaller fraction of the population is able to afford today’s prices than was true in 1994.
How have we arrived at this undesirable – and, I would suggest, unacceptable – outcome?
Well, there are several reasons. Higher education is an inherently costly enterprise, and there are few economies of scale: doubling class size, for example, would save money, but it would come at the expense of a personalized learning environment – the primary selling point of private higher education.
Last Friday, the latest edition of TIME Magazine hit newsstands across America with a cover that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago – one blurb previewing the “Reinventing College” issue proclaimed, “Our Exclusive Poll: 80% Think College Isn’t Worth the Money.”